Industry View: Sarah Plovanich, Hammacher Schlemmer
Sarah Plovanich is a senior buyer at Hammacher Schlemmer, a 174 year old American catalog company that has supplied everyone from the Queen of England and Alfred Hitchcock to Steve Jobs and Michelle Obama. She manages a team focused on selecting products for home categories as well as apparel, accessories and footwear. Hammacher Schlemmer has a history of publishing products with innovation, history and a unique point of view. Among many firsts, they were one of the first retailers to offer the electric steam iron - a cutting edge product at the time that has since become a familiar household item. Sarah's focus is on European-sourced products and partnerships. Here she tells us why Showcase is such an important event in her buying calender and why it's so important for her to visit the show in person each year to source new products and to meet suppliers face-to-face.
Hanna Hat’s bespoke tweed quilt made by seamstresses that have passed down the tradition for generations. All tweed is woven at Magee.
How important is Showcase as a trade show on your annual buying calendar?
Showcase Ireland is one of the shows that kicks off our sourcing season. It’s positioned early in the year, shortly after the close of Q4, after we have had time to analyse customers’ holiday buying data and make informed, strategic decisions for the upcoming season. Being in Q1, the timing gives us a chance to fall in love and secure spaces for key products before being inundated with other items.
How do you think it compares to other trade fairs that you attend in the US and Europe or beyond?
Showcase Ireland is hyper-focused on Irish made goods. That gives us confidence that the quality of the goods will be high, products are made with care and a sense of pride, and, more likely than not, everything will have a story.
When nearly any product is accessible nearly anywhere in the world, finding things that have an origin story (are manufactured in a time-honoured way using skills and materials passed through generations) differentiates in a sea of products - a tough thing to do.
Nearly everyone we interact with in the various booths of Showcase can provide a lineage on where their wool is being shorn, how they process their linen, what kind of loom they use… it’s a level we don’t see anywhere else.
Woollen throw made by Cushendale on the same site which has ties all the way back to 13th century monks.
Have you been attending trade events in the past two years or have your attendances been at digital shows?
Both - but nothing compares to attending in person.
Will you be attending this year’s Showcase in person?
Fortunately we will be attending Showcase 2022 in person. I would don a bubble suit if it meant that I wouldn’t have to miss Showcase Ireland.
Bubble suit, eh? So, why is it so important to attend the show in person?
Attending in person allows you to assess quality, of course, but more importantly, it allows you to find products that you didn’t know you were looking for.
These are the products that allow us to differentiate and excite our customers.
It also allows you to give full attention to those you are interacting with. The multi-tasking element of digital meetings (including eating a sandwich while scrolling through a product pitch) doesn’t usually produce the best results.
Aran Woollen Mills herringbone poncho.
What do you like about the Showcase event in Dublin?
I like how small, but dense, Showcase Ireland is. There is little fat at the show, it’s focused on content. Representation is present from a wide variety of vendors, but it doesn’t feel so big as to be daunting.
Which Irish brands do you/ have you stock(ed)?
We have stocked everyone from Magee 1866 to Rathbornes 1488, Hanna Hats of Donegal to Cushendale, Naomh Padraig Handcrafts to Muckross Weavers to West End Knitwear… I could go on.
Church candles by Rathbornes 1488, Ireland's oldest registered company.
What kind of products are you looking for when you attend such events?
We are looking for manufacturers with a story. If we see a banner that says “Established 1822” under a company’s logo, we are like bees to honey.
Anyone that that can endure the toll of generations of operating their business makes an automatic impression on us. We love telling their stories and the Hammacher Schlemmer customers feel like they are buying a little piece of history (even if the product itself was actually produced only 90 days prior).
Newer manufacturers are certainly not written off however. Often, it’s the newer vendors that bring a sense of ingenuity - supply chain and manufacturing efficiencies for example.
Anyone that is willing to produce limited edition or unique products, exclusive to Hammacher, are right by us too.
Do you think that Irish design and craft is well respected internationally?
I think Irish design and craft is like a dark horse. Ireland doesn’t automatically pop up in people’s minds during a discussion about design and craft, but I would be hard pressed to find someone that sees a “Made in Ireland” tag and not feel an automatic sense of reassurance that they are looking at a quality product.
What trends do you see in retail in terms of product for this year?
It feels like the pendulum is swinging to both ends at the same time. Equal parts everyday, core, timeless aesthetics and, at the same time, one-of-a-kind, hyper-personalised products.
Magee’s Irish flannel lounge pants.
How have consumer habits changed due to the pandemic?
I think customers have reprioritised in a way. They understand that it’s no longer “standard” for all items to arrive on their doorstep in less than 48 hours. That said, when they do arrive, their purchases are expected to be “worthwhile”.
The lowest price doesn’t always win the game anymore - it’s more about value. Customers are getting past the “disposable” mentality of “If it breaks, I’ll just get another one” in favour of spending their money on things they care about and that will withstand the test of time.
What advice would you give to Irish business owners in terms of their ability to compete internationally and/ or on large scale platforms such as Hammacher Schlemmer?
Consistency, reliability, honesty, communication and a sense of pride.
These may feel like quaint concepts but having a partner who can dependably deliver high quality merchandise on an agreed upon schedule goes further than any slick marketing campaign or the ability to shave off a few pennies.
At the end of the day, Hammacher is 100% focused on pleasing our customers. Having reliable key vendor partners gives us the ability to do that.